In 1999, HEATHER Stewart – whose husband, Al, owns Stewart’s Brewing Co. in Bear, Del. – came home from the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, raving about Alaskan Smoked Porter.
This is a rich, dark beer that almost always steals the show at the fest, the largest beer-judging event in the world. Visitors often rush into the festival hall and make a beeline for Alaska Brewing’s booth to make sure they get a taste of the porter before all the kegs kick.
“She fell in love with it,” said Stewart’s brewer, Ric Hoffman, “and she insisted we start making it, too.”
Now smoked porter is a fairly esoteric beer, especially in an era when people not only turn up their nose at smoke, they actually write dopey laws to ban it. But it does have a rich tradition: until the 18th century, malt was typically fire-dried, and the smoke was a natural by-product. (Think whiskey, and how its flavor is enhanced by the smoky peat that fuels the grain-drying kilns.)
In Bamberg, Germany, where fire-drying is still common, it’s called rauchbier.
The suburban strip malls of northern Delaware aren’t exactly teeming with stein-hoisters from Deutschland. And Hoffman works with a small, basic brewing system designed, he said, “so you could show a monkey how to do it.”
But Hoffman was still game. The next summer, he sent off for some Bamberg malt that had been smoked over a beechwood fire, fiddled with his porter recipe and cooked up a batch.
And it was pretty damn good.
It sold slowly, but enough to encourage him to make a second batch. The next year it tasted even better, so he sent it off to the GABF for judging.
Hoffman’s smoked porter won a bronze medal, finishing behind a Kansas brewpub (no gold was issued that year) and astounding beer freaks across the region.
Somehow, a small, unknown brewer working with rudimentary equipment in an anonymous shopping center in the middle of cookie-cutter housing developments had managed to turn out a complex brew that, on that day in 2001, was judged to be one of the best in the world.
It certainly caught my eye and, though it wasn’t till this summer that I finally made good on a promise to visit his brewpub, I sought out Hoffman’s ales at every area festival I attended.
Tasting those beers, it was obvious: The bronze was no fluke.
Which is a roundabout way to report that Stewart’s Smoked Porter did it again. At last weekend’s GABF, Hoffman took yet another bronze for his smoky beer, finishing behind brewpubs in Nevada and Ohio.
Making a good smoked porter is a dicey proposition, Hoffman explained, because you’re never certain how much smoke is in the malt. “Sometimes you can use just a little bit, and the smoke is over the top,” he said. “Other times, you have to pour a whole bag in before you get any smoke.”
“Basically, you have to open the bag, smell it and taste it and adjust your recipe,” Hoffman continued, crediting his assistants John Fiorilli and Eric Boice with helping him on the batch.
Hoffman further tweaked his recipe this year, abandoning his favored Ringwood English ale yeast (used most famously in the old Wild Goose ales) for the cleaner-finishing Chico yeast from Sierra Nevada.
“We’ve kind of learned as we went along,” he said.
Even today, with two GABF medals, the smoked porter is still the slowest-moving house beer at Stewart’s. (That’s good news for those who haven’t tasted it yet. Hurry down to Delaware, and you’ll find it still pouring on tap this week.)
Little guys taking risks to make a better beer – that is the essence of craft brewing in America today. And it’s a tribute to this suburban joint – in the midst of so much pale yellow BudMillerCoors – that it willingly pours a dark beer flavored with smoke.
“I’ve kind of proved myself around here, and I get a lot of freedom,” Hoffman said, explaining why he continues to take risks. “The nice thing is, I can pretty much do anything that comes off my head.”
Or, in this case, from the owner’s wife.
Hoffman also won a Dunkel Rico, a dunkel named after the deadbeat uncle in “Napoleon Dynamite.” Here are the other Philly-area GABF medallists:
- Russian Imperial Stout, Iron Hill, Media: Imperial stout category.
- Schwarzbier, Rock Bottom, King of Prussia: German-style schwarzbier.
- Tröegenator Double Bock, Tröegs Brewing: Bock.
- Raven, McKenzie Brew House, Glen Mills: Baltic porter.
- Bourbon Ivan, Iron Hill, West Chester: Wood- and barrel-aged beer.
- Bengal Gold I.P.A., Triumph Brewing, New Hope: English-style India Pale Ale.
- Berliner Weiss, Bethlehem Brew Works: German-style wheat ale.
- World Wide Stout, Dogfish Head: Aged beer.
- Festina Lente, Dogfish Head: Belgian-style sour ale.